Tuesday, 14 December 2010

"With it" to a certain extent: the Lemon Pipers

For a while I though it was so obscure there might not be an image of the above album cover online, but of course there was. I bought it, I suppose, because of the Marble Arch brand. Marble Arch was Pye's quality (ie the records were sonically good) budget label, a reassuring sign because the very first album I bought was Donovan's Fairytale in that form. Marble Arch covers always had white bars at the top and bottom and you were informed of key song titles.

So the series was easily identifiable, the records themselves were substantial - ie fairly heavy pieces of vinyl, even though the running time was never overgenerous. Donovan's album had a few tracks knocked off, for example, presumably so that, a la the Fabs' American issues, there might be eventually be enough material to enable a new album to be fashioned out of those offcuts.

But other than the reassurance of the tried and trusted label, whatever made my ten or eleven year old self decide that my next purchase had to be an album devoted to the Lemon Pipers?

I must have heard and liked Green Tambourine, and at some point, during some family holiday, my immediate elder brother told me he had just heard a broadcaster announce, just before playing Rice Is Nice, also by the Pipers, that he didn't really look this newfangled pop but that "One must be 'with it' to a certain extent."

But that was about it. I knew nothing else by them and I hadn't particularly hungered and yearned to hear more. Nor can I remember the act of buying the record or seeing its cover - as had been the case with Fairytale - tantalising me from the window of a now-vanished shop. And if you look above, you'll see that Marble Arch's graphics team hadn't exactly pushed the boat out for this American act.

And pretty soon I had sold the album on, to a sister of a schoolfriend, if I remember correctly. I don't know what she made of it, as I never met her, though I can probably date the transaction to 1970 at the latest - or maybe even 1969, the year of the album's issue. And I haven't thought much about the album, or the group, in the intervening forty years: when Green Tamourine crops up in a compilation or on the radio it's a pretty period piece, but I only half-listen.

So why am I writing about this album now? Blame the magic of the internet, and spotify in particular. I was compiling a vaguely psychedelic playlist and remembered one of the songs from the album whose title, at least, spoke about the times: Love Beads and Meditation, and I listened to a few other songs I dimly remembered from the LP I'd quickly recycled.

And my verdict: no, not a neglected masterpiece, but what with the overfamiliarity of more well known artists of the time, it felt refreshing to hear those who had attempted to cadge a lift on the bigger names' coat-tails. That song title sort of gives it away that the Lemon Pipers were not unaware of the Beatles' existence but there are other songs which owe clear debts to individual tracks by the Fabs. And it's good to hear them after all this time: to hear, for example, Shoeshine Boy which, like the Bonzos' Equestrian Statue, is a "response", shall we say, to Penny Lane. And actually Love Beads and Meditation may owe more to the group who also stayed with the Maharishi in India, the Beach Boys. And then we have Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade), though this is less druggy than it might appear, more about the fantasy world two lovers can inhabit.

The one incongruous track on the album was Turn Around and Take a Look, which seemed corny, though I can sort of hear they may have been going for a Lovin' Spoonful-type feel (their labelmates back in the States, in fact). And I think Paul McCartney admitted Good Day Sunshine on Revolver "borrowed" from Daydream, so no one is innocent.

The others I don't remember, though I can see they included a cover of Wasn't Born to Follow.

Having written the above, I realised I ought to find out something about the group, so headed for wikipedia, as you do, where I see that Turn Around and Take a Look was an initial and unsuccessful attempt by a band member to come up with a hit song, and that many of the group's songs were by Brill Building writers Paul Leka and Shelley Pinz. When their Green Tambourine was a hit, their record company, Buddah, put pressure on the group to stay in the bubblegum genre. An article by Larry Nager, here, quotes band member Larry Nave on "the duality of the Lemon Pipers":
We were a stand-up rock 'n' roll band, and then all of a sudden, we're in a studio, being told how to play and what to play.
They left Buddah in 1969 and later "dissolved", which seems an appropriate term. But there is a small footnote: three band members,
Bartlett, Walmsley and Nave formed Starstruck, whose recording of a Lead Belly song, "Black Betty" was reworked by Super K Productions producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, and released in 1977 under the name of Ram Jam, featuring Bartlett.
That was a big hit in the UK, and I actually heard it sung live a few months ago, by Joe Brown. Whose success predated the Beatles. Ee, it's all cyclical. And members of Beatle-influenced 10cc worked with those producers. But rather than getting lost in my own jelly jungle of connections, a final quote, taken from the wikipedia page, taken from the book Bubblegum Is The Naked Truth.
It was the Pipers’ way with a tough-pop gem in the under-four-minute category which was most impressive by far: "Rainbow Tree", "Shoeshine Boy" and especially "Blueberry Blue" each sported a taut, musical sophistication worthy of The Move and, dare I say it, even the Magical Mystery Beatles.
A lightly clad truth, but very pleasing pop nonetheless. Here's Shoeshine Boy:

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